To be seventeen
by Sunny Schlenger
Once a week I get to be 17 again. Sort-of.
I go to the high school in town and mentor three teenage girls who have the deck stacked against them; one is pregnant, one has Tourette’s and all three have been bullied big-time. But they have grit and big hearts, and I am in awe.
I never thought that I would choose to work with teenagers again. After raising two myself, I was sure that I had been there and done that. But the Universe has amazing ways of bringing you ‘round again. The funny thing is I received my Masters in Education, in counseling, many moons ago. I originally thought that I would be a guidance counselor, until I did an internship in a North Carolina public school and saw how much of my day would be taken up with lunch duty and bus duty and other administrative tasks. No way.
So I struck out on my own in the budding field of professional organizing where I would get to make my own decisions and create my own schedules. I’m now of an age when I have the time to “give back” a little more and darned if I haven’t been directed once again to helping teenagers. But this time I’m (hopefully) wiser, have a lot more tools at my disposal and also have a heck of a lot more patience.
I asked myself, “If I could go back and give my 17-year old self some guidance, what would I say? What would I want to know sooner rather than later?” I wouldn’t take back all of the “mistakes” that I made because they led me to where I am today. But I sure could have used knowledge on how to make better gut-based decisions rather than fearful, “what will others think of me” ones.
Kids today have changed somewhat in response to the modern stressors they’re under, but fundamentally they’re the same. They want to know that they’re heard and that their opinions are respected. They like reassurance but not heavy-handed direction. They need to know that they are more than the sum of their grades and extra-curricular activities.
I saved a journal that I wrote when I was 17 and 18 years old. There were definitely times when I wanted to chuck it because I was so embarrassed about my self-important ramblings, but I didn’t and I’m grateful for that now. I have a record of the fact that yes, I was actually 17 years old at one point, and rereading it helps me relate to today’s teenage angst and obsessions.
I like listening to the girls and how well they know themselves for their age. It seems that the traumas they’ve endured have allowed them to make choices about their well-being that many 17 year old students have yet to embrace. A significant one has been to learn to laugh at themselves. How many adults do you know who can do that? And yet it is an essential part of the maturation process.
They tell me that they want to learn more about how to achieve stability and how to make better decisions. The girl expecting the baby says that she wants to be able to set a good example for her child. She’s already decided not to marry the father because they don’t love each other, but he wants to be around to help care for the baby and she welcomes that.
It’s clear to me that helping these kids to both manage themselves and stay open to the opportunities that come their way is one of the things I’m here to do. Thank goodness I’m comfortable sharing my own screw-ups and hard lessons I’ve learned along the way, which I know is essential to gaining and keeping their trust. This is a learning experience we’re in together.
And I think this is what it comes down to – these girls are part of my past and my future. I can help them navigate the journey towards sharing their own gifts and talents with others. We’re all connected, and to think otherwise is to delude ourselves about the meaning of our existence on earth.
I can imagine how thunderstruck my 17 year old self would have been if someone told her what a fundamental part she was playing in the world; how she was an agent for change and that she must live her best life so that she could help others to do the same.
Find a few 17 year olds and give them this message. Those young men and women need to know how much one life can matter – their own.